As it approached time for my daughter to move on from her play-based cooperative preschool to kindergarten, I was not impressed by our local public school (one of the kindergarten teachers told me point-blank that he would never send his child there due to severe problems with the administration), which sent me on a citywide investigation that took me to visit some 40 private school open houses searching for the proverbial best fit.
I developed a methodology after awhile which involved finding parents of current students to chat up, under the theory that if I could find a group of parents I liked, I'd probably like the school. I also tried to get some private face-time with at least one of the kindergarten teachers, preferably all of them. My daughter's preschool was a half-day program and she was still napping at the time, which seemed about right to me, but kindergarten was a full-day proposition and I wanted to know what the teachers thought about that.
In the privacy of those one-on-one conversations, I didn't speak with a single one of these teachers who felt full-day school was appropriate for 5-year-olds: it made the day too long, they couldn't concentrate for a full day, they should have more free-time to "just play." It was the parents who demand it, they told me, for "child care" purposes, many of them explaining that the second half of their school day was not at all "academic," focusing more on quite reading or PE or art. Some of these teachers, typically the more senior ones, got quite exercised by this topic, going on to tell me that it was a particular challenge because so much of what had once been considered 1st grade curriculum when they had started teaching had now been pushed down into kindergarten. For instance, kindergarteners, across the board, were being systematically taught to read, whereas that had traditionally been the purview of 1st grade. (I have a concrete memory of arriving for my first day of 1st grade back in 1968 to find a construction paper cutout of a teddy bear on my desk, with the name "T-E-D" written on it -- our first official reading word). Today, there are experts who are pushing the idea that kids should be reading in preschool!
I once tried to get my 3-year-old friend Jaan to hurry up and he responded, "Hey, it's not a race." That was over a decade ago, yet it still comes back to me on an almost daily basis and it applies here, Hey, it's not a race.
Yesterday, Lenore over at the Free Range Kids blog posted a link to the Chicago Now blog where Christine shared a kind of 1st grade readiness list from 1979 that was developed by the highly respected Gessell Institute of Human Development (now called the Gessell Institute of Child Development). Apparently, the idea was that if you couldn't answer "yes" to at least 10 of these markers, your child was not ready for full-day first grade (apparently half-day 1st grade was an option then):
- Will your child be six years, six months or older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction.
- Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth?
- Can your child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman, where he lives?
- Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored?
- Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five to ten seconds?
- Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels?
- Can he tell left hand from right?
- Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend's home?
- Can he be away from you all day without being upset?
- Can he repeat an eight- to ten-word sentence, if you say it once, as "The boy ran all the way home from the store?
- Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?
- Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?
An interesting list, no? It seems that young children in 1979, indeed, had lower academic expectations placed upon them; appropriate expectations it seems to me. After all, there is absolutely no data to support the idea that early reading, for instance, is an indicator of future academic attainment, so why shouldn't we take it at a more reasonable pace? Hey, it's not a race.
On the other hand, I'm sure number 8 popped out at most of you. It seems that if 1979's academic expectations were lower, the standards for the "life skills" a 6-year-old ought to possess were significantly higher, and this, as Lenore points out was back when the crime rate was much higher than it is today.
There is so much more to learn in school, and in life, than literacy and math, truly useful things like getting around on your own, playing with your friends, and using the basic day-to-day tools of our culture. The list makes me think that childhood was more like, well, childhood in 1979.
I know it's trite to suggest that we let kids be kids, but I'm going to suggest it anyway. Hey, it's not a race.